Bob Dylan and Wallace Stevens in Conversation

ARTICLE BY Jim Salvucci, Independent Scholar

Abstract: Bob Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” and Wallace Stevens’ “Of Mere Being,” both composed in their authors’ septuagenarian years, engage in an intertextual conversation about the end of life. That both are evidently set in Florida as they contemplate the distant horizon adds to the intimacy of their conversation and invokes the range of Stevens’ Florida poems, which Dylan’s song extends thematically. Dylan’s speculation about the liminal moment of death centers on immortality and equanimity and thus is more reassuring than Stevens’ conception, which is more abstract and terminal even as it holds out hope for a renewal. Both authors emphasize the profound ambiguity of liminal death as one approaches the unequivocal finale of life and its potential beyond.

Keywords: Dylan, Bob; Stevens, Wallace; “Key West (Philosopher Pirate); Rough and Rowdy Ways; “The Idea of Order at Key West”; “Of Mere Being”; death; dying; afterlife; immortality; legacy; horizon; Key West; Florida; Florida poems; flowers; intertext


Not all great poets—like Wallace Stevens—are great singers, but a great singer—like Billie Holiday—is always a great poet.

Bob Dylan (qtd. in Marcus par. 48)


A student of literature as well as Americana, Bob Dylan has long known of the poetry of Wallace Stevens, as the epigraph above establishes. The quotation appears in critic Greil Marcus’ famous Rolling Stone review of Dylan’s album Self Portrait, but Marcus supplies no other pedigree for the statement than that Dylan said it “a year ago,” which would date it as 1969 (par. 48). While Dylan has always been a magpie of sorts, absorbing the words of others and fashioning them into his own original works, I am not aware of Stevens’ poetry appearing in Dylan’s songs or other writings—with one possible exception. In 2001’s “Po’ Boy,” Dylan sings punny lines that appear in the authorized lyrics on Bob Dylan as

Poor boy, sitting in the gloom 

Calls down to room service, says, ‘Send up a room.’

In contrast, unofficial online transcriptions commonly reproduce that first line as, 

Po’ boy, in the hotel they call the Palace of Gloom. (For instance, Dylan, “Po’ Boy Lyrics”) 

That transcription notwithstanding, I find it impossible not to hear Dylan sing, 

Po’ boy, in the hotel they call the ‘Palaz of Hoon.’

In my hearing, the line is an aural allusion to the Stevens poem “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” in which a solipsistic Sol sets at the end of the day, much like the ever-sinking Po’ Boy who never seems to catch a break. Whether Dylan sings “Palace of Gloom” or “Palaz of Hoon,” one thing we can be sure he does not sing, thankfully, is “sitting in the gloom.” Although this allusion is a rare and speculative instance of Dylan using Stevens’ language in his writing, we can find a confluence of ideas elsewhere. For instance, in “Not Dark Yet,” Dylan writes, “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain,” an intertextual variation of Stevens’ famous line in “Sunday Morning”: “Death is the mother of beauty.” More broadly, this song and the poem address similar themes regarding the inevitability of darkness. A more extensive intertextual conversation takes place between Dylan’s song “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” from his album Rowdy and Rowdy Ways (released 2020) and Stevens’ poem “Of Mere Being” (first published posthumously in 1967). Of all Dylan’s songbook, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is his most Stevens-esque lyric, with its Florida locale, its catalog of flower imagery, its horizonal perspective, and its sense of movement within stability. The conversation between the two works revolves around their shared geographical setting and thematic focus even though they express a divergent perspective on life, death, and what lies in between.

The album Rough and Rowdy Ways features a thematic thread that contemplates the prospects and consequences of a long life and, importantly, the process of aging. This theme narrows to a progression in the final three numbers, which Richard Thomas deems “the closing epic triad of the album,” starting with “Crossing the Rubicon,” the album’s eighth song (55). “Crossing the Rubicon” explores the steady march of choice and consequence that constitutes life itself and amounts to little more than a series of metaphorical Rubicon crossings, the most significant being the very first—the traversing of the birth canal. Fate is set at that moment, and nothing can stand between that birth and its ineluctable conclusion—death—a sentiment Dylan articulates in “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” as, “he not busy being born is busy dying.” Similarly, in “Huck’s Tune,” Dylan equates all of life as a form of death (“In this version of death called life”), making life itself the only Rubicon that matters in the end. The first song on Rough and Rowdy Ways, “I Contain Multitudes” is even more direct regarding the transience of life: “The flowers are dying like all things do.” This focus on life and death prevails as Rough and Rowdy Ways closes with “Murder Most Foul,” a saga of life’s conclusion. Its repercussions occur as an otherworldly perusal of the aftermath of death and a supernatural address from the afterlife or, perhaps, a plea to the afterlife. We witness the assassination of John F. Kennedy, some details that surround it (including hints of conspiracy theories), and finally its ethereal aftereffect: a litany of musical requests to a celestial “Mr. Wolfman Jack.” 

Unfolding between these two narratives, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” envisions the passage from life toward the approaching end. As a song about the nebulous, liminal space before death, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” recalls the horizonal theme of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Of Mere Being,” composed shortly before his death in 1955 and possibly his last poem.[1] The composition of each work occurs late in the authors’ lives (though precisely how late in Dylan’s life has yet to be determined), with the song and the poem conducting a literary conversation regarding the end of life while also sharing similarities of setting, content, and even form. For instance, Dylan’s song explicitly and Stevens’ poem evidently are set in the tropics of southern Florida with its perpetual warmth and never-fading flora. “Winter here is an unknown thing,” as Dylan sings.[2] For Stevens the region is, in Helen Vendler’s phrase, “the realm of the sun” (41), a symbol of the life cycle and a topos most pertinent in the context of works envisioning the sunset of life in “the land of light,” as Dylan would have it. Similarly, Eleanor Cook avers that “Florida released something in Stevens” (Poetry, 67). The ostensible Florida setting of the two works contributes a geographical definiteness to life’s ultimate certainty even as both works emphasize ambiguity in the advance toward that certainty. However similar in this regard, though, the poem and the song draw different ideological conclusions regarding the conditions of our terminal state.

It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of Florida to Stevens and in his writing. Florida imagery pervades his poetry, with critics grouping a subset of his works as his “Florida poems.” Some, like “Of Mere Being,” do not expressly invoke Florida but still turn to the imagery of the tropics. For instance, as Karl Precoda notes in his perceptive article “The Noble Rider on the Terminal Beach,” one section of “The Comedian as the Letter C” is labeled “Approaching Carolina,” but it “is recognizably Floridian in its details” (8). Whatever the precise setting, “Comedian” is a poetic narrative of voyage, discovery, and landing that, as Cook observes in A Reader’s Guide, “allegorizes his partial literary biography as the physical and mental journey of Crispin,” the main character and Stevensian persona of the poem (46-7). In fact, we can see the Florida poems’ setting and imagery as a sort of crude plan for a continuous journey through the experience of life as in “Farewell to Florida,” where Stevens’ departure is akin to death or a permanent transformation like a snake that “has left its skin upon the floor.” Also, as with “Comedian” and other Florida poems, “Farewell” is full of sea imagery and the trope of a movement or a voyage, launched with the hail, “Go on, high ship.” In the early poem “Fabliau of Florida,” another voyage is enacted without movement as a boat, “Barque of phosphor,” lies still “on the palmy beach.” Stevens commands it to sail toward the nighttime horizon, but the only actual motion is the surf with its perpetual “droning,” which mimics the constancy (and tedium) of the life journey. He also evokes this language and imagery in “Two Figures in Dense Violet Night” where the “droning sibilants” of the “sea-sounds” resolves into the serene and intimate beauty of a nighttime “serenade.” The sounds here and throughout the Florida poems are a recurring part of the life experience as they “come to dominate the music of Stevens’ lines” (Precoda, 7). In “Indian River,” the sound is not a drone but a “jingle” that rings steadily all over Florida, mixing the human-made (“rings in the nets”) with the natural (“jingle of the water”). In “Primordia,” a self-pastiche of a poem that embeds the entirety of “Indian River” as its ninth section, Stevens depicts the “voice of the wind” as a continental sound, linking the Florida peninsula with the rest of the American landmass, but it is sound and the movement of air, not solid dirt and rock, that bounds and delineates the continent.[3] Cook counts these Stevens poems, along with several other Florida poems, among the “fluency poems” that work “with the concept and trope of flowing and fluency” (Poetry, 39). Time and again throughout Stevens’ Florida poems, we witness the association of sound and movement with the land, as though the land flows like water, as in “The Load of Sugar-Cane” or “Infanta Marina.” We also feel the sense that even the land is not solid but is a phantom on the horizon. Thus the land itself is the movement of a journey, the journey of mind and geography that Crispin and Stevens take, which are among the tropes that Cook identifies in “Comedian” (Poetry, 77-8). This same conceit plays a significant role in Stevens’ final Florida poem, “Of Mere Being,” and in Dylan’s only Florida song, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” both of which dwell on the liminal state of terminal transition, on fluency within stability.

I refer here to “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” as Dylan’s sole Florida song, but a number of Dylan’s songs mention Florida or Florida locales. For instance, “Po’ Boy” evokes Florida as a potential escape from “them Georgia laws” (and is thus less a Florida song than a Georgia song, if that). Some Florida cities surface in passing in Dylan songs, such as Miami in “Caribbean Wind” or Tallahassee in “Got My Mind Made Up” (co-written with native Floridian Tom Petty), a city that also appears among the litany of place names that is “Wanted Man.” To be sure, Dylan’s association with Florida extends beyond individual songs and recordings. For instance, Dylan recorded Time out of Mind in Miami, but none of the album’s songs explicitly evokes that city or its state. More tantalizing is “Florida Key,” a handwritten Dylan lyric sheet from the Basement Tapes sessions that musician Taylor Goldsmith set to music and performed on 2014’s Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes. While the lyric is situated in Florida and is a plaintive expression of love and longing, Dylan neither finished nor performed it, nor does it appear on the list of songs on his authorized website, Bob Dylan. As such, it is hard to qualify the abandoned lyric sheet “Florida Key” as a Dylan song with the same definitiveness that, say, “Of Mere Being” is a Stevens poem. Unless and until Dylan composes another, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” remains the only Dylan song that approaches the spirit and depth of Floridianess present in Stevens’ Florida poems.

The major theme of Dylan’s “Key West (Pirate Philosopher)” is the mediation of the condition of life and the condition of death—the instant just before or of death itself—within the journey of life that is Rough and Rowdy Ways. The outcome is not equivocal, but this liminal state is itself marked by vagueness. It is a moment within a transition, a suspension that offers the possibility of reflection. Much like the “horizon line,” which the song references twice, this state is not physically fixed as its position is always relative to the perceiver, like a boat at rest on the water, still and not still, an echo of the tropes of several Stevensian Florida poems. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is, after all, a sea song, and Dylan knows the sea, having sailed the Caribbean extensively on his schooner, the Water Pearl, with his family for ten years “from Martinique to Barbados” (Chronicles 163), adventures that manifest in the horizonal perspective and the movement of the song.[4] As with the horizon, the liminal state the song evokes can never be visited as a destination nor fully experienced and yet is always perceivably there, certain and inescapable. Meanwhile, this condition, though ostensibly static, roils with tension and pressure, pulling and pushing—a boat adrift. Like Dylan’s sailboat, the land mass of Key West is only deceptively permanent, an impermanence reinforced by the fact that Dylan’s boat sank in a storm (Chronicles 163). Furthermore, Precoda offers the historical detail that even in Stevens’ day, much of the land of Key West had been claimed and reclaimed by ongoing dredging (9) and that the island was largely a mass of “shifting sands” (10), much like the horizon itself—there and not there—and in theoretical danger of disappearing altogether like the island resort in Dylan’s “Black Diamond Bay.” In “Farewell to Florida,” almost foreshadowing the fate of Dylan’s schooner, Stevens describes this very instability—“Key West sank downward under massive clouds”—exemplifying the fluidity amidst seeming solidity we see throughout the Florida poems and in Dylan’s Florida song.

The lyrics of Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” present a first-person narrative of a man who himself is at sea and is best understood as at once literally Dylan and not. After all, while many lines and the song itself resonate as Dylan’s bona fide personal reminiscences and musings, so far as I am aware, no biographer has ever uncovered an instance when a preteen Bobby Zimmerman was made to marry a sex worker as the narrator of the song asserts: 

Twelve years old and they put me in a suit
Forced me to marry a prostitute
There were gold fringes on her wedding dress
That’s my story but not where it ends
She’s still cute and we’re still friends
Down in the bottom – way down in Key West

This narrative is provocative and has generated much speculation. For instance, numerous online commentators have, offering scant evidence, construed this particular vignette as a sardonic reference to Robert Allen Zimmerman’s bar mitzvah, but as David B. Green notes in Haaretz, that ceremony took place on 22 May 1954 (par. 1), merely two days before the future Bob Dylan turned thirteen, the normal age for a Jewish boy’s bar mitzvah. While he was still twelve at the time of the ceremony, the two-day age differential remains more technical than consequential, and it seems unlikely that Dylan would further obscure what would only rate as an opaque reference to his own bar mitzvah with such artifice. More pertinently, in the very next verse, Dylan references “Pretty Little Miss,” a 2011 Patty Loveless song that features a young girl who is looking forward to marrying at age twelve but is jilted by her would-be groom. Thematically and structurally, Loveless’ song is quite different from Dylan’s, but they share the topical kinship of preteen marriage. Alternatively, the reference could be to an identically titled traditional bluegrass song, also with a theme of impending marriage, although the ages of the bride and groom in that song are never established and are evidently considerably older than twelve.

As with the sequence on young marriage and many of the song’s lyrics, the opening lines of Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” are disconcerting. Why start with the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 at all, and how could the narrator have “[h]eard it on the wireless radio,” which was still in its developmental infancy at the time McKinley’s death? Could Dylan be guilty of a careless anachronism? Many others have noted that the first line of Dylan’s song (“McKinley hollered – McKinley squalled”) quotes the opening line of “White House Blues” by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, first recorded in 1926 (for instance, Thomas 63). Poole’s song cleverly tells the story not of McKinley’s life and assassination but of his final days lingering with the fatal consequences of two bullet wounds. Thus, when Dylan’s narrator states, “I heard all about it – he was going down slow / Heard it on the wireless radio,” he is not referring to the breaking news of McKinley’s murder but to hearing the song “White House Blues” itself playing on the radio. While listening to the radio in his youth back in Hibbing, Minnesota, Dylan would most likely have heard the 1959 version of “White House Blues,” by the New Lost City Ramblers, which has a different opening line and “updates” the lyrics to the Hoover-Roosevelt transition period.

Another curious reference is the use of the word “pirate,” which occurs most prominently in the title as well as in the phrase “pirate radio station.” The affiliation of pirates and Key West is both historical and contemporary. A simple internet search will reveal much pirate activity in and around Key West dating back to the sixteenth century. One may also uncover an extensive list of present-day pirate-themed businesses and venues along with indications of the island’s more recent use as a smuggler’s base. Additionally, in “A Pirate Looks at Forty,” Jimmy Buffett, a songwriter long associated with Key West, portrays the melancholy reflections of a modern-day drug runner as he enters middle age—a theme in line with that of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Dylan, an admirer of Buffett, performed “A Pirate Looks at Forty” with Joan Baez in 1982 (Greene par. 5), and Buffet arguably makes another appearance in Dylan’s song as “Jimmy” in a litany of individuals who were “born on the wrong side of the railroad track.” The title also calls to mind the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht song “Pirate Jenny” from The Threepenny Opera (1928), which Dylan discusses at length in Chronicles, Volume One, describing its great influence over him when he was first learning to write songs (272-6). The Weill-Brecht song is from the point of view of Jenny, a former prostitute (ostensibly unmarried and decidedly not “still cute”) and housekeeper who fantasizes about wreaking revenge on all those who look down upon her. In Jenny’s reverie, a dark pirate ship launches an assault from the harbor to rescue her from misery and to exact vengeance as the invading pirates defer to her leadership to decide the fates of the survivors. In Chronicles, Dylan refers to the song’s “ghost chorus” (275) with “[b]ig medicine in the lyrics” (274), so in this way, her musings make her a sort of metaphysician pirate if not a philosopher pirate. Still, “Pirate Jenny” is an intense and disturbing song in both music and lyric. “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” by contrast, though exhibiting its own lyrical potency, has the melodic movement of a lullaby cum sea shanty (see Hartman 8).

So how is Dylan’s titular pirate a “Philosopher Pirate?” Instead of attempting to further unspool the Gordian knot of allusions in the song, a focus on the thematic conversation between it and “Of Mere Being” by Wallace Stevens, a poet renowned for his philosophical rumination, may offer insights. After all, according to Thomas, intertextuality is “a hallmark of Dylan’s song composition since the 1990s” (42). Indeed, the conversation between these two works, along with several of Stevens’ Florida poems considers both the philosophical and metaphysical dimensions of mortality.

Dylan’s Key West is as much an aspirational horizon point as it is a physical island, a geographically fixed reality, even though we know that it is largely a mass of reclaimed sand. The Key West setting recalls numerous poems by Stevens, most obviously “The Idea of Order at Key West,” which, like “Of Mere Being” and so many other of Stevens’ poems, resists definitive interpretation as it flows through meaning(s). Similarly, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” refuses to settle, its fragmented narrative consisting of a series of observations of experiences on the island of Key West, including the sights, locations, and people associated with the island, literally or figuratively, all of which connect with concepts the songwriter wishes to express. In effect, this narrative functions as a fictional or representational life review. Stevens’ “The Idea of Order at Key West” also educes memory (genuine, enhanced, or fabricated) as it revolves around the notion of trying to snatch settled order from fluidity much as Stevens’ reader attempts to snatch settled meaning from his poetry. Precoda observes Stevens’ inclination to associate the fixed with longitudinal movement in that “Stevens reads landscape like a book, stressing the temporality of the act of perception” (14). In “The Idea of Order,” on a beach at sunset, a siren-like singer draws the poet’s attention. For Cook, Hoon is a “forerunner of the singer,” which makes sense as both mark the end of day (Poetry 133). In “Idea of Order,” the singer’s voice mimics the sea in the listener’s mind, and he muses about meaning, meaninglessness, agency, and creation. In the closing stanzas, Stevens notes the human imperative to impose order on a chaotic world and conveys a sense of loss in this process. 

While Key West and Florida are featured throughout Stevens’ works, there is a particular emphasis on the flora of the state with extensive references to Florida and Florida-adjacent terms, which Cook documents as “‘Floréal,’ ‘florid,’ ‘flora,’ ‘flor-abundant,’ and so on” (Poetry 71-2). Similarly, Dylan’s Florida song, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” itself features flowers and plants throughout, which are not typically prominent subjects in his other lyrics. In this floral context, two of Stevens’ Florida poems warrant closer scrutiny. The first is “Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores,” a contemplation of ennui, a recurrent Stevensian topic. In the poem, the poet notes the languidness of a sultry day, presumably in Florida. At the end of the poem, the sight of a vivid hibiscus bloom shocks the poet from his torpor as its brilliance contrasts with the climatic indolence. The poem is as much about a mental awakening as a sensual awakening with a “monstered moth” lingering over the garish flower “all the stupid afternoon.” In contrast, and characteristically, Dylan’s song does not treat his hibiscus so analytically: “Hibiscus flowers, they grow everywhere here / If you wear one, put it behind your ear.” Still, like the hibiscus in Stevens’ poem, the lines are sensual and provocative particularly since wearing a flower behind the ear is unhelpfully supposed to signal either that a female is available or that she is taken. The flower reference thus stands as an instance of Dylanesque ambiguity and dissonance that augments the song’s presentation of a liminal state of being.

Another Stevens poem, “O, Florida, Venereal Soil,” includes the lines, “In the porches of Key West, / Behind the bougainvilleas.” This poem, too, references the ennui of the tropical clime, which at night gives way to its own form of sensuality, a libidinous restiveness. In the last stanza, he calls out: 

Donna, donna, dark,

Stooping in indigo gown

And cloudy constellations,

Conceal yourself or disclose

Fewest things to the lover —

“Donna donna” here is as much a woman as it is the flowering belladonna, a poisonous plant employed medicinally as, among other things, an anesthetic, a sedative, or an aphrodisiac, which reinforces Stevens’ titular use of “venereal” in its every sense (Cook, Poetry 69). The diminutive and “stooping” indigo/purple flowers of the belladonna are native to Eurasia but grow widely in Florida as an invasive species. The closing line of the poem depicts the flower, referencing a variation of belladonna’s alternate moniker, “nightshade”: “A pungent bloom against your shade.” Dylan’s song references both flowering plants in separate lines: “Bougainvillea blooming in the summer, in the spring,” and a more indirect image of the belladonna: “The tiny blossoms of a toxic plant / They can make you dizzy.”[5]  These floral images subtly echo the ennui, sensuality, and eroticism of Stevens’ lines. 

I am not suggesting that the coincidence of these floral images are Dylan’s intentional allusions to Stevens’ poetry. It is clear, though, that the poet and songwriter have, at the very least, compatible visions of Key West, and that these visions inform a literary conversation across generations and genres. As noted, Stevens has infused his poetry with flowers throughout his career, often in a Floridian context, while Dylan seeds “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” with plants and flowers, sometimes cryptically. For instance, Dylan’s lines, “The fishtail ponds and the orchid trees / They can give you the bleedin’ heart disease,” allude to three Florida plants in a slightly disguised presentation: fishtail palms, orchids (a flowering plant, not a tree), and bleeding heart flowers, none of which feature prominently in Stevens’ poetry, just as none of the flora in “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” has ever appeared in any previous Dylan lyric.

While itself devoid of flower imagery and introducing only a lone palm, Stevens’ “Of Mere Being” presents a stripped-down philosophical vision even more compatible with that of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate).” Like “Hibiscus on the Sleeping Shores,” it is not explicitly set in Key West or Florida or anywhere else in particular; although, with its phantasmagoric image of an exotic bird in a distant palm tree, the poem does evoke that setting. “Of Mere Being” educes the space between departure and arrival, or as B.J Leggett speculates, it “may be thought of as a poem about after leaving or beyond leaving” (139). The opening lines present a golden bird in a palm rising in the distance “in the bronze decor,” which evokes the sunset as one approaches the horizon, an image Dylan separately resurrects as a “Bird on the horizon, sittin’ on a fence” in his 1975 song “You’re a Big Girl Now.”[6] Given that Stevens composed the poem late in life and likely while ailing, it stands to reason that mortality colors or at least tints the poem’s theme. The poem opens with an image: “The palm at the end of the mind, / Beyond the last thought.” Later, “The palm stands on the edge of space.” Thus, the palm is an object that comes into view after the “last thought” but just before or at the end, a terminus on the horizon and a vision of an oasis with accompanying mirage. “Palm” in the first line bears an aural similarity to the word “poem,” thus insinuating the poem “at the end of the mind,” which anticipates Dylan’s wordplay with “fishtail ponds” vs. fishtail palms. The language of the poem’s final line echoes the alliteration and imagery of the last line of “Nomad Exquisite,” a fellow Florida poem that ends “Forms, flames, and the flakes of flames.” In “Of Mere Being’s” final image, “The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down,” eliciting a vision of the phoenix aflame and destined to rise from its own ashes but not rising yet. It is, thus, a poem that addresses the end of life. Jennifer Bates notes the weightiness of this image: “Instead of upward swords of flame, the colors in the fire-fangled feathers are drawn downward, as though even the flames of fire—whose nature, according to Aristotle, is to go up—could not escape the pull” (159-60). Tim Armstrong recognizes the poem as articulating a “sense not only of Stevens’ work, but also of his life-cycle, and particularly the moment of death itself” (43). 

But it also is a poem of renewal, transition, and even hope, and like “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” it is a pause for reflection in the midst of that transition, which Cook perceives as a “transmutation” (Poetry 312). In this and in the image of the wind that “moves slowly in the branches,” the trope of fluidity that pervades the other Florida poems operates in “Of Mere Being.” The poem announces a belief in the cyclical nature of life but certainly not literal reincarnation or rebirth. As Cook puts it, “The poem is of mortality yet with a sense of immortality, though not personal immortality. It is a kind of will and testament of song” (Poetry 312). The poem gestures toward the perpetual regeneration of the poet through his poems that metaphorically live on after him—thus, “The [poem] at the end of the mind.” Brayton Polka conjectures but does not insist that in “Of Mere Being,” “the artificial bird is the poem, it sings the poem, it makes the poem” (54). Cook sees a complex pun linking the palm and the bird, and she also affiliates the palm’s leaves with the poem’s words (Poetry 312). Whether the palm is the poem or the bird is the poem is immaterial to my reading of the distant object representing the potential of Stevens’ artistic/intellectual legacy. As Bates puts it, “[o]nce risen, the palm, bird, or poem as a whole are in a sense absurd” (161). Leggett observes that “[t]he poem attempts to posit a conception of being that is sundered absolutely from the human mind and thus necessarily survives ‘the end of the mind’ in death” (141) although, like Stevens, he does not venture to suppose what that state of mind may be with any precision. 

Dylan’s “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” as a nonliteral life review, contains much more narrative than “Of Mere Being,” but it is more a chronicle of a state of being or states of being than a coherent, linear story. Dylan’s island of Key West is both distant and near, like “that pirate radio signal,” which communicates with the local listener from its exotic origin “out of Luxembourg and Budapest” and is at once present and not present, an ethereal sound that, distorted by atmospherics, can tease and evade the would-be listener. Similarly, Stevens’ golden bird sings a “foreign song,” audible but beyond the listener’s understanding, even as it manifests within the familiar setting of a palm tree in the breeze.

As we already saw, the song is more narrative than the poem and starts sharply in medias res with an impending death, the immediate aftermath of the attack on McKinley, which will echo as Kennedy’s assassination in “Murder Most Foul.” The last verse before the final chorus brings us back to the theme of death as the singer reports that he “heard your last request.” The chorus then antithetically offers, for the second time in the song, the promise of eternal life in heaven:

Key West is the place to be

If you’re lookin’ for immortality

Key West is paradise divine

Given the association of Florida and environs with the legend of the Fountain of Youth, it is only appropriate that Key West would be the source of perpetual life, but Dylan’s Key West offers immortality of a different sort, as a “paradise divine,” not an earthly eternity. Dylan makes a similar promise of an afterlife in his other great horizon song, “Beyond the Horizon”: “Beyond the horizon, behind the sun / At the end of the rainbow life has only begun.” The first and last choruses of “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” conclude that “Key West is on the horizon line,” which, like Steven’s palm, is forever on the “edge of space” and, in fact, definitionally demarcates the optical separation of the sea from space, which is visible to us on Earth as the sky. The horizon line, where we can locate Key West, is an illusion, the image of a seemingly set and accessible location that is neither set nor accessible at all since its position is entirely relative to the inherently mobile viewer. There can be no mappable geographical coordinates to define the horizon line. Dylan’s Key West, like Stevens’ “gold-feathered bird” that sings in the palm “without human meaning, / Without human feeling” is phantasmal, “the enchanted land”—visible on the edge of perception but intangible and alien, fluidly there and not there.

The musical performance of the song generates a similar tension. As Christopher Ricks has observed in Dylan’s Visions of Sin, the most pronounced distinction between song and poetry is the performative aspect of the former, which can illuminate and subvert the lyrical text (14-5). In “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” understated and lurking in the background, the instruments propel the song and hold it back at the same time, enacting the fluidity of the lyrics. At moments, a guitar strains, perhaps with the help of a tremolo bar, pushing the music almost out of key before dragging it back again. (This effect is most notable immediately after the line, “I play the gumbo limbo spiritual.”) The result is beautifully subtle but unmistakable once you take note of it. The ever-present accordion, the number’s “signature sound” (Hartman 8), plays throughout in counterpoint, which further increases the pleasant tautness while providing “a delightful aquarelle tone” (Grafe and McKeown 223). Meanwhile each line of the melody rises and then falls, like a boat at sea riding swells—a movement of music and of feeling.[7] Since it is a long song, the total effect is lulling and ultimately mesmerizing as the movement of the music lingers just on the edge of consciousness, “the edge of space.” In this way, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” shares much with the mellifluous aural experience of Stevens’ Florida work.

Appropriately, while both of these works are about ending or at least visualizing the end, they are full of false endings—primarily performative, in the case of Dylan’s song, and primarily structural, in the case of Stevens’ poem. In “Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” Dylan sings the chorus four times in four different versions. The first three choruses are followed by a rest before the instruments pick up the next verse, thus creating a false ending to the song after each of these three choruses. Ironically, the final chorus is the only one not followed by a rest or false ending but is followed immediately by an instrumental fadeout, the true ending of the song. Similarly, Stevens’ “Of Mere Being,” while not primarily a performative work, induces a sense of ending over and over in the last two of its four stanzas by presenting six sentences splayed paratactically across a mere six lines. If not for the fact that one can see more words remaining on the page, some of these sentences could feel terminal, thus falsely giving the impression that each is an ending. When the poem is read aloud, which is the only mode of performance available to poetry as poetry, this effect is particularly pronounced, an illusion that is only enhanced if the reader exaggerates the pauses at the periods. Stevens’ use of paratactic sentences in the final two stanzas stands in radical contrast to the first two stanzas, which consist of one continuous sentence, or, as it is, two independent clauses joined by a comma after the first stanza. The first two stanzas/independent clauses, thus, are linked as a single thought or image, an artificial continuation, which is the opposite of a false ending. The abundant false endings in both these works project a sense of incompleteness, which Bates also detects in Stevens’ images (103), and evoke the thematic sense of conclusion followed by new or renewed beginning. For Dylan this new beginning is in “the land of light,” which Thomas sees as offering “a brighter glimpse of the afterlife” than that of “Murder Most Foul” (60). For Stevens, the new beginning is something even more evocatively figurative and discomfiting (the phoenix in flames). Quoting a phrase from Stevens’ “The Poems of Our Climate,” Bates argues that “Of Mere Being” “is apocalyptic in that it uncovers and celebrates how imperfection, properly understood, is complete: the poem expresses Stevens’ view that ‘The imperfect is our paradise’” (163). In this way, Dylan’s song and Stevens’ poem are equally sanguine regarding the state of death.

In their philosophical conversation about the end, these two works, the song and the poem, present the authors’ visions of the tentative and liminal instant at the end of life, the moment when the dying can perceive the end but not quite reach it. It is, on the one hand, a place of serenity where, as Dylan opines, “If you lost your mind you’ll find it there.” To reach the “horizon line,” a physical impossibility, is to live eternally in equanimity. On the other hand, for Stevens, this liminal instant is a moment of immolation, annihilation, and triumphant revitalization, not literally, but as a representative new beginning, perhaps as a creature of renown without consciousness. Although reaching “the edge of space” is a logical impossibility since pure space contains all matter and has no edges, to do so figuratively is to live on in seemingly violent cycles of memory and repute—as a phoenix of eternal renown. For both authors, the moment portrayed is a mediation of striving and holding back, and their depictions of that state are neither comforting nor dismaying. They are, like the horizon itself, the mere end, just there in the inchoate distance, reliably and forever. As “Of Mere Being” is Stevens’ final Florida poem, “Key West (Philosopher Pirate)” is Dylan’s only Florida song and, in terms of subject, imagery, form, and spirit, extends the scope and propels the thematic reach of Stevens’ Florida poems into the genre of song and into the twenty-first century.


Works Cited

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—. Poetry, Word-Play, and Word-War in Wallace Stevens. Princeton UP, 1988. 

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—. Chronicles, Volume One. Simon and Schuster, 2004.

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[1] Tim Armstrong discusses at length the “delicate” question of this poem being Stevens’ last in “Stevens’ ‘Last Poem’ Again.” For my comparison, it is only necessary that the reader recognize the poem’s having been composed toward the end of Stevens’ life as his health was failing, according to Eleanor Cook (A Reader’s Guide 314), and the thematic implications of that timing with regard to Dylan’s own later work. On liminality generally in Dylan’s songs, see Tenschert.

[2] In his poem “Indian River,” Stevens similarly declares, “Yet there is no spring in Florida.”

[3] Dylan, likely unconsciously, replicates this airy conceit in a couplet Allen Ginsberg deems the “national rhyme” of “Idiot Wind”: “blowing like a circle around my skull / From the Grand Coulee Dam to the capitol.”

[4] Douglas Brinkley, in the introduction to his 2020 interview with Bob Dylan, envisions the lyrics more terrestrially as “an ethereal meditation on immortality set on a drive down Route 1 to the Florida Keys” (par. 5), perhaps with particular reference to the line, “Stay on the road – follow the highway sign” from the first chorus, the only lyrical indication that the song may approach the Keys via a land route.

[5] Some internet commentary identifies the tiny poisonous flowers as lilies of the valley without offering any textual evidence, but according to the National Gardening Association, the lily of the valley simply cannot grow in the warmer climate of southern Florida (“Lily of the Valley in Florida?”).

[6] The image of the bird at such a far remove raises a practical matter. At the distance of the horizon or the “edge of space,” a bird of any size would be difficult to see and even more difficult to hear, but the poet and the songwriter do both with surprising acuity.

[7] “Music is feeling, then, not sound,” Stevens muses ironically in “Peter Quince at the Clavier.”